Water is heavy and hard to transport into orbit, which is why the International Space Station is a champion when it comes to recycling. Even astronaut urine is captured and processed to make it drinkable. The system that does this work is about to get an important upgrade.
The ISS water recovery system is tasked with turning wastewater into potable water. The urine-processing part of the system has been an ongoing concern. Astronauts will be installing a redesigned urine distillation assembly. This piece handles the crucial step of boiling urine to kick off the purification process.
“One of the most important things we’ve learned in the last 12 years of the hardware’s orbital operation is that the hardware is vulnerable in its steam environment,” said NASA’s Jennifer Pruitt in a statement on Monday.
NASA said the upgrades are focused on internal redesigns, “including a new toothed belt drive system, bearing seals, Teflon spacer and liquid level sensor.” If you want to dive into the details (including the technical glitches the system has encountered), then check out this NASA paper on the upgrades (PDF link).
The hardware arrived on board the SpaceX Dragon 1 cargo resupply ship that docked on Monday. NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center described the redesigned system as a “much-appreciated upgrade.”
A more reliable system is good news for the crew of the ISS, but it’s also an important step for NASA’s future exploration plans. The space agency has its eyes set on returning to the moon and eventually sending humans to Mars. In-space water recycling will be even more important for these long-term missions that take astronauts far away from Earth.